Families of those lost in Iraq need straight talk
By Shanna Flowers

The nation is growing leery of a war in which area men such as John Ryan Howard, Michael Lalush and Jonathan Bowling honorably gave their lives.

Polls come out frequently that measure the public's growing discontent about why we're in Iraq and whether we can accomplish victory there. Congress members, including a Republican, have drafted resolutions calling for President Bush to withdraw troops. Bush went on national television this week to bolster the nation's resolve. He has flatly rejected the calls to set a deadline to withdraw.

"How do you say 'OK, we're leaving next week, or next month or next year?'" Kathy Howard of Covington would say to those calling for a firm exit date. Her son, Marine Staff Sgt. John Ryan Howard, 26, served twice in Iraq and was killed Aug. 11, 2004, in a helicopter crash. "My son thought we needed to be there. He thought it was worthwhile."

"Our son was ready to go to war," said Becky Lalush of Botetourt County, who along with her husband, Dave, met privately with the president in December.

"He said, 'What do you think I've been training for?'" Lalush said of her son, Marine Sgt. Michael Lalush. The 23-year-old died March 30, 2003, in a helicopter crash, becoming Western Virginia's first casualty in the war.

"I've got a large investment in it," said Darrell Bowling, whose son, Martinsville police officer and Marine Cpl. Jonathan Bowling, 23, was killed when his unit was ambushed Jan. 26.

"Every young man and woman that is in Iraq stuck their hand up and said, 'I'll go,'" Darrell Bowling said, referring to the volunteer military. "You take a person willing to take on that responsibility, you better support them."

I was against invading Iraq. But we're there now.

Tuesday night, Bush essentially told us that war is hell. We know that. All one has to do is see the tear escaping from the corner of Becky Lalush's eye or hear the soft weeping of Kathy Howard over the phone or listen to Darrell Bowling talk poignantly about his loss.

Their sacrifice is the nation's sacrifice. More than 1,740 troops have been killed and more than 13,000 injured in the 27-month conflict.

The war is a daunting challenge. Americans understand and accept that. What we need to hear is a detailed and effective strategy for our mission in Iraq - and Afghanistan.

We need ongoing straight talk, and not glib assessments such as Vice President Dick Cheney's recent and obvious mischaracterization that the burgeoning insurgency is in its "last throes."

Americans need clear-cut benchmarks, outlining the conditions that must be met to improve Iraq - or heaven forbid, if it doesn't improve, to know eventually when to say when. We need straightforward assessments about the number and progress of the Iraqi military and police and when they actually will be ready to defend their country.

As a nation, we need to be told the burden of war is for all to share and not just some individual families.

"I don't think anybody should set a date," Dave Lalush said. "We've got to do it, and do it right to honor the fallen."

Becky Lalush still cries "at least every other day" over the loss of her son. You don't, of course, ever get over such a deep hurt but "you learn to accept it," she said.

"If it weren't for my faith," Kathy Howard said, "I wouldn't be able to get out of bed."

Darrell Bowling, a Virginia state police trooper, tries "to keep busy doing something," including helping other Marine reservists.

The Lalushes have found support in the Gold Star Mothers, an organization of mothers who have lost a child in war or service to the nation's military.

Over Memorial Day weekend, they rode their son's motorcycle to Washington to join more than 300,000 motorcyclists as part of Rolling Thunder, an organization that works on behalf of prisoners of war and the missing in action, and also raises awareness of veterans issues.

In December, the couple was among about 50 families invited to Camp Pendleton in California, where Bush made a speech to troops. Afterward, the president spoke individually with the families. He posed for a picture with the Lalushes, along with one of their son's friends.

"I'm not necessarily a Republican," Becky Lalush said. "I was crying. He had tears in his eyes. President Bush seemed so sincere, that he cared. He didn't want publicity for this."

As for the eroding poll numbers reflecting Americans' wariness about Iraq, Becky Lalush and Kathy Howard said they believe they would be different if Americans saw the good that's being done in Iraq.

"We don't see the good things. All we see is the bad stuff," said Howard, whose middle son, a Navy ensign, is scheduled to go to the Persian Gulf in November. Her oldest son is joining the Virginia Defense Force, which backs up the National Guard.

"The people who matter, the people who were downtrodden the most, if you will, are glad we're there."

Shanna Flowers' column runs on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.